RALEIGH, N.C. — As the final seconds ticked down and the New Jersey Devils (34-28-16) scored an empty-net goal to seal a 3-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes (34-33-11), whatever hope was left of the season finishing on a positive note seemed to go with it, too.
The Hurricanes’ playoff hopes were already around one percent or less mathematically entering the game and obviously dipped well below that with the loss to a team ahead of them in the standings.
But what was more important is that the Devils — on a day less of rest and without some key players — were the harder-working team, too.
"We lost a few players on the road trip and we walked in and we won a hockey game in a tough arena, in (Pittsburgh)," Hurricanes’ head coach Kirk Muller said. "No one’s going to let up, and that’s why these players are at this level. (The Devils) played last night, a lot of their top players played a lot of minutes and they come in here and outwork us. That can’t happen."
That’s the real, tangible goal the Hurricanes still had out there, slim playoff hopes aside — to play as hard as they can and form an identity around that moving forward with a pretty young roster.
The Hurricanes played well at times against the Devils, but they just couldn’t generate much on offense until it was too late.
As well as Muller knew the margin for error came down to effort level, so too did veteran defenseman Jay Harrison.
"We wanted to come out and have a great game, continue to build on what we did and we just came out a little bit short," Harrison said. "They outplayed us a little bit tonight and were a little bit more desperate to pucks and a little bit harder than we were. That was the difference. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to be the difference."
What the Hurricanes had done entering Saturday night’s game was win two in a row for just the second time since the Olympic break and have some encouraging performances along the way, too, including that win in Pittsburgh that Muller had mentioned.
But wins over two of the league’s better teams in Pittsburgh and then at home in a commanding 4-1 over Dallas on Thursday followed by a performance like this one just make things more frustrating, in a sense.
"There’s definitely a lot of good things you’re seeing, which can be as frustrating as it is motivating because we have the talent in the locker room. We have the ability," Harrison said. "We have the guys to get the job done. You can see that on a lot of nights when we can compete with the best teams in this league. So in that sense, it’s kind of a double-edged sword."
Muller was just as frustrated that the effort of some of his players would be overshadowed by some of his other players not being at that same level.
He said after the game that not everyone was on the same page. When asked why, he asked the reporter if he’d asked the players why. The reporter replied that at least one player (Jeff Skinner, in this case) said they couldn’t get their legs.
"I don’t know," Muller said with a shrug. "There’s no excuses, so. You win or you lose and you get out of it what you put into it. Like I said, we had some guys that really put everything into it and some guys didn’t and at the end of the night, you fall short."
All the Hurricanes can do now is play out the string and hope to continue to build better habits moving forward, at least giving the fans another reason to come out and watch with effort and intensity.
"Everyone’s supposed to be in it together. Coaches, players, everybody. So we’re going to push each other. If there’s still mathematically opportunities to get in (the playoffs), then you’ve got to keep rolling and you’ve got to keep pushing," Muller said.
"That’s why we’re all in the NHL — being a pro, that’s what it takes. You said before, there’s a lot of people behind this team, a lot of fans and everything. It’s our obligation to go out and give it our best effort and go for it every night to win hockey games."